The Morgan Affair
From the Short Talk Bulletin of the Masonic Service Association of the
VOL. 11 March 1933 NO. 3
Perhaps the most romantic story of Freemasonry, the fuel which the
alleged abduction and murder of William Morgan supplied to the
anti-Masonic hysteria of a hundred years ago, and the gradual emergence
of the Ancient Craft from the cloud which threatened to extinguish it,
is a tale which all Freemasons may ponder to their enlightenment.
William Morgan, a brickmason, lived in Batavia, New York, from 1824
to 1826. Accounts of him differ widely, as they do of any notorious
person. Few are so wicked as to be without friends; few are so good
they have not their detractors.
From the estimates of both enemies and friends, the years have
brought an evaluation of Morgan which shows him as a shiftless rolling
stone; uneducated but shrewd; careless of financial obligations: often
arrested for debt; idle and improvident; frequently the beneficiary of
That he was really a Mason is doubtful; no record of his raising or
Lodge membership exists, but it is certain he received the Royal Arch in
Western Star Chapter R.A.M. No. 33 of LeRoy, New York. It is supposed
that he was an "eavesdropper" and lied his way into a Lodge in Rochester
by imposing on a friend and employer, who was led to vouch for him in
Wells Lodge No. 282 at Batavia.
Judge Ebenzer Mix, of Batavia, a Mason of unquestioned reputation,
wrote of this alleged Masonic membership: "There must have been a most
reprehensible laxity among the Masons both of Rochester and LeRoy; for
there was no evidence educed, then or afterwards, that he ever received
any Masonic degree save the Royal Arch, on May 31, 1825, at LeRoy." At
any rate, he visited Lodges, was willing to assist, made Masonic
speeches, took part in degrees.
When Companions of Batavia asked for a Royal Arch Chapter, he was
among those who signed the petition. But suspicion of his regularity
began to grow, and his name was omitted as a member when the Charter was
granted. Just how much this incident inspired the enmity he developed
for the Fraternity is only a guess; doubtless it had much to do with
Enemy he became, and it became known that he had applied for a
copyright on a book which was to "expose" Masonic ritual, secrets and
procedure. In spite of the deep resentment which this proposed expose
created, Morgan entered into a contract (March 13, 1826) with three men
for the publication of this work. These were: David C. Miller, an
Entered Apprentice of twenty years standing, stopped from advancement
for cause, who thus held a grudge against the Fraternity; John Davids,
Morgan's landlord; and Russel Dyer, of whom little is known. These
three entered into a penal bond of half a million dollars to pay Morgan
one fourth of the profits of the book.
Morgan boasted in bars and on the street of his progress in writing
this book. The more he bragged, the higher the feeling against him ran,
and the greater the determination engendered that the expose should
never appear. Brethren were deeply angered, fearful that were the
"secrets" of Freemasonry "exposed", the Order would die out.
Feeling ran high. Matters came to a head in September, 1826. Morgan
was arrested for the theft of a shirt and tie. Of this he was
acquitted, but immediately rearrested for failure to pay a debt of
$2.68, and jailed. After one day behind bars, someone paid the
When he was released he left in a coach with several men, apparently
not of his own free will. He was taken to Ft. Niagara and there
confined in an unused magazine. Then Morgan disappeared!
What happened to William Morgan?
Enemies of the Craft said Freemasons had kidnapped and murdered him,
to prevent the publication of his expose. Freemasons, of course,
indignantly denied the charge. As time went on and Morgan was not
found, members of the Craft disavowed any approval of any such act, if
it had been committed. Governor Clinton, Past Grand Master, issued
proclamation after proclamation, the last one offering two thousand
dollars reward "that, if living, Morgan might be returned to his family;
if murdered, that the perpetrators might be brought to con dign
It was not too difficult to discover that Masons were concerned in
Morgan's hundred and twenty five mile journey to Ft. Niagara. Three
members of the Craft -- Chesebro, Lawson and Sawyer -- pleaded guilty to
conspiracy to "seize and secrete" Morgan, and, together with Eli Bruce,
Sheriff, and one John Whitney, all served terms in prison for the
But murder could not be proved for no body was found.
In October, 1827, a body was washed ashore forty miles below Ft.
Niagara. Morgan's widow "identified" the body, although it was dressed
in other clothes than her husband had worn alive; was bearded, although
Morgan was clean shaven; had a full head of hair, although Morgan was
bald! Thurlow Weed, Rochester Editor, was accused of having the corpse
shaved and of adding long white hairs to ears and nostrils, to simulate
the appearance of Morgan. The first inquest decided that this was,
indeed, the body of William Morgan.
Three inquests were held in all. The third decided, on the
unimpeachable evidence of Mrs. Sara Monroe, who minutely described the
body, its marks, and the clothes it wore, that the corpse was not
William Morgan, but Timothy Monroe, of Clark, Canada, her husband.
Commonplace and unexciting truth seldom catches up with scandalous,
electrifying, remarkable falsehood! William Morgan had disappeared.
Freemasons had been convicted of abducting him. A body had been found
and identified as Morgan. That better evidence and a less excited jury
had later reversed this identification was anti-climatic. The stories
of Morgan's "murder" persisted.
Thurlow Weed, whom history shows as an unscrupulous opportunist, no
matter what the exact truth of his activities with the body may have
been, added fuel to the flames.
Weed died in 1882, On his death bed he stated that in 1860
(twenty-two years before) John Whitney, who had been convicted in the
conspiracy charge, confessed to him the full details of the murder of
Morgan. According to this alleged confession, Whitney and four others
carried the abducted Morgan in a boat to the center of the river, bound
him with chains, and dumped him overboard.
Weed stated -- and here his memory failed him -- that Whitney had
promised to dictate and sign this confession, but died before he could
do so. But Whitney died in 1869 nine years after!
Whitney did indeed tell a story -- not to Thurlow Weed, who was his
accuser in the conspiracy case and whom he hated -- but to Robert
Morris. This story is both the most probable and the best attested of
any we have, as to the true fate of William Morgan. Whitney told Morris
that he had consulted with Governor Clinton at Albany, relative to what
could be done to prevent Morgan executing his plans to print the
Clinton sternly forbade any illegal moves, but suggested the purchase
of the Morgan manuscript, for enough money to enable Morgan to move
beyond the reach of the influence and probable enmity of his associates
in the publishing enterprise.
From some source (Masons? Governor Clinton?) Whitney was assured of
any amount needed, up to a thousand dollars, which was a great sum in
those days. In Batavia Whitney summoned Morgan to a conference in which
the bribe was temptingly held forth. On the one hand, the enmity of
all, persecution, continual danger -- it is not improbable that threats
were mingled with the bribe! On the other hand, money, safety, freedom
from a plan to publish which held much of danger.
If Morgan would take five hundred dollars, go to Canada, "disappear",
his family would be provided for, and later sent to him! Morgan agreed.
He was to be arrested and "kidnapped", to make it easy to get away from
Miller and his associates.
Whitney feared that without some such spectacular escape, Morgan
might at the last moment decline to go through with the plan, fearing
reprisals from his friends in the publishing venture. Whitney told
Morris that two Canadian Masons received Morgan from the hands of his
"kidnappers" at Ft. Niagara, traveled with him a day and a night to a
place near Hamilton, Ontario, where they paid him the five hundred
dollars, receiving his receipt and signed agreement never to return
without permission of Captain William King, Sheriff Bruce, or
Later there were two other "confessions" of complicity in the
"murder" of Morgan -- neither consistent with the facts. Doubtless they
were of the same hysterical origin which leads so many notoriety seekers
to confess crimes which by no possibility they could have committed.
Did William Morgan choose the easier way, disappear with five hundred
dollars from a dangerous situation, eliminating from his
responsibilities a wife and family suddenly burdensome, and, in a new
freedom, ship on a vessel from Montreal and out into the world, there to
come to an unknown end?
Or was he basely murdered by Masons who thought the crime less than
the evil results to follow on the publication of Morgan's Book. No man
knows. No incontestable evidence can be adduced -- or was ever adduced
-- definitely to prove either solution. All that is undoubted is that
William Morgan was apparently kidnapped and did disappear.
It is difficult, a hundred years after, to understand the extent and
power of the widespread excitement and passions this incident created.
For the fame and infamy of the Morgan affair spread over an immense
territory. It was the beginning of an anti-Masonic sentiment which grew
and spread like wild fire. Meetings were held, the Order was denounced
by press and pulpit. An anti-Masonic paper was started -- with Thurlow
Weed as Editor -- soon joined by the Anti-Masonic Review, in New York
The many groups in Pennsylvania, already opposed to any oath bound
society (Quakers, Lutherans, Mennonites, Dunkards, Moravians,
Schwenkfelders, German Reformed Church) were aroused to a high pitch of
feeling against the alleged "murderers" and "kidnappers" -- the
Freemasons. The anti-Masonic excitement spread -- and fast and far.
Gould, in his History of Free-Masonry, thus epitomizes the spirit of
"This country has seen fierce and bitter political contests, but no
other has approached the bitterness of this campaign against the Masons.
No society, civil, military or religious, escaped its influence. No
relation of family or friends was a barrier to it. The hatred of
Masonry was carried everywhere, and there was no retreat so sacred that
it did not enter.
Not only were teachers and pastors driven from their stations, but
the children of Masons were excluded from the schools, and members from
their churches. The Sacrament was refused to Masons by formal vote of
the Church, for no other offense than their Masonic connection.
Families were divided. Brother was arrayed against brother, father
against son, and even wives against their husbands. Desperate efforts
were made to take away chartered rights from Masonic Corporations and to
pass laws that would prevent Masons from holding their meetings and
performing their ceremonies."
Reverend Brother John C. Palmer, Grand Chaplain of the Grand Lodge
of the District of Columbia, says in his little classic of the Craft,
Morgan and anti-Masonry (Volume 7 of The Little Masonic Library,
published by The MASONIC SERVICE ASSOCIATION in 1925):
"The pressure was so strong that withdrawals by
individuals and bodies were numerous. In 1827, two hundred and
twenty-seven lodges were represented in the Grand Lodge of New York. In
1835, the number had dwindled to forty-one.
Every Lodge in the State of Vermont surrendered its Charter or became
dormant; and the Grand Lodge, for several years, ceased to hold its
sessions. As in Vermont, so also in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island,
Massachusetts, Connecticut; and in lesser degrees in several other
states. The Masonic Temple was cleft in twain; its brotherhood
scattered, its trestleboard without work; its working tools
Thus Masonry endured the penalty of the mistaken zeal of those
fearful brethren who thought that the revealing of the ritual to profane
eyes would destroy the Order and who hoped to save it by removing the
traitor within the camp."
Space here is not sufficient to retell the interesting, often
exciting, and always varied story of the political campaigns which were
predicated on, and took much of their ammunition from, the anti-Masonic
excitement which followed the Morgan affair.
It is not to be supposed that the abduction and alleged -- never
proved -- murder of Morgan was the sole cause of this outburst, any more
than was the assassination in 1914 the sole cause of the World War.
Both were triggers which set off guns which, in turn, caused other
Suffice it here that a wave of hysteria was seized upon by able
politicians, fanned by demagogues, increased by the righteous
indignation of good men and true who saw not beneath the surface, helped
onward by press and pulpit with the best of intentions but little
understanding, until the whole east flamed with passion and Freemasons
were spit upon in the streets, lodges threw away their charters, and
Freemasonry bowed its head to a storm as unjust and undeserved as all
religious persecutions have always been.
Like any other hysteria, this passed. Passions wore themselves away.
A few sturdy and brave men stood staunchly by, a few Grand Lodges with
high courage and the strength of the right never ceased to proclaim
their allegiance to the principles of the Order. Little by little,
Freemasonry raised its head; one by one, lodges took heart; brother by
brother, Craftsmen returned to their Altars.
After a period following almost twenty years of more or less complete
eclipse, the sun of Freemasonry shone again, and the world was treated
to a spectacle that has been a heartening lesson to millions and will be
to counted millions yet to be born anew at the sacred Altar of
Freemasonry -- the strange sight of an Order many had thought dead,
suffering from uncounted thousands of stabs to the heart, coming again
to life to grow and thrive and attract to it then, as it had in the
historic past, men of the highest character.
It is for this that the Craft of today can offer thanks to the Great
Architect for the Morgan affair. Dreadful as it was to the men who
lived through it, terrible in its consequences to the brethren who
suffered, it demonstrated again -- and it may be hoped and believed,
once for all -- that the underlying faith of Freemasonry, its Ancient
Landmarks, its foundation upon Deity and the Great Light, together are
stronger than any evil, more lasting than any calumny, more enduring
than any human passions.
Forever and forever, So mote it be!
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